To get to my workplace you have to take a nondescript exit off of the interstate which only goes West. You drive past the used car sales lot that spreads across across all four corners of a small junction. Past this is the pink, battered Chinese restaurant devoid of windows. For two or three blocks small businesses mix with residences that are shadows of their former glory. They blend into a shabby district of sagging, peeling, weeping houses, pea-sized in comparison to their neighbors. A few multifamily buildings have been tucked in on odd lots.
A vivid imagination might conjure up better days. One brick house on the corner tilts on its foundation with boarded windows, and a small sign close under the rafter reads “For Sale by Owner”. It could probably be had, like most homes in this area, for a few thousand dollars, but who wants it?
On brisk mornings teenagers huddle to wait for the bus, twenty-somethings shiver on the porch in their sweats with cigarettes dangling from their lips. Dogs wander from yard to yard. Finally, to my left there’s the mini-mart tucked between two homes; its sign promises good prices, and they seem busy. At last, to the right, at the corner, is a BBQ restaurant I’ve never heard of anyone eating there, but on some lunch hours the parking lot is packed. Across the street, a small bar with outside seating, has never been open when I’ve driven by.
I pull in across the street. If you don’t work for the Department of Corrections, you don’t need to take this road. A road juts immediately to the right. It will take you to a Spanish style white mansion that used to house the wardens a long time ago, but is now a museum and meeting room. A sign welcomes you to the state mental hospital. This is deceptive, but they don’t mean to be. You can get to the state hospital from here, if you know the way. Over the years, the three state facilities that sprawl across this part of town have shifted buildings a few times, so at one time this sign was helpful.
I drive down the old asphalt beneath a three-story, boarded, brick building that tells you in no uncertain terms that it is a death trap on account of asbestos (one of the ironies of the compound is that this building used to house the state nurses), and I park in the first parking lot I come to. This might sound simple, but the first time I came for an interview I drove right past the parking lot and was about to drive in several laps around the campus until the perimeter guard tracked me down and pointed me in the right direction.
Then I walk up to the tall metal fence topped with razor wire and wait to get buzzed in through Gate 1, the same entrance I made as an interviewee. I wondered then if I could ever get used to going to work like that, ever permeated with a cloud of suspicion and threat. I’ve come to conclude that no one gets used to that feeling, nor are we supposed to. “This is your job. You work in a prison. Be on guard,” it seems to whisper every morning.
Because we sometimes come in three or four at a time, I wish the lobby were larger, and I hear there are plans to expand if the building moratorium is ever lifted. By the time we’ve laid down keys, bags, lunches, and coats, it’s hard to keep track of what’s what and whose is whose on the 20″ x 20″ table. We scramble to swipe our badges into the time clock before our shift begins. Next we start walking through the metal detector which is always a sight.
Someone strolls confidently through, and it beeps. You can feel the people waiting grow impatient. The confident person starts patting themselves down and mumbling. They might find a penny in the pocket or take off a belt or take out a hair pin that usually passes the test, and then pass through clear. The next person takes off a bunch of junk, then covers his badge and something else with his hands which makes him look like he’s just modest and trying to cover up other things. He’s about 250 pounds, but he almost tiptoes through the detector like this. Even though he looks ridiculous, it usually works. I’m a shedder. If the alarm goes off, I shed anything extra. My belt typically makes it through, but I’ve had days where I had to take out my bobby pins because the machine has decided to be sensitive.
Now we dress again, pull out keys from a machine, and turn in chits for our equipment. As a teacher, I only ask for a radio and a canister of OC. Some teachers, who’ve served in other capacities through the years, also carry cuffs. If you’ve ever seen me with cuffs, you know why that would be a joke. Five minutes later I’m buzzed into the yard.
I walk past Building 8, the residence hall, or cell house. I use cell loosely here because experienced officers who’ve worked in adult facilities will point out that the “cell” doors don’t lock, among other quirky traits. The building reminds me of a dormitory, and I have to catch myself from using that term. Some days the offenders will tap on the windows for attention, but I ignore them to avoid trouble or a glimpse of a naked body. Who wants to see that first or last thing in the day?
As I walk down the pathway I note the weather, take in a deep breath of fresh air, and look to the sky. It’s my last breath before I take the plunge into Building 10, Century High School.
This building too has undergone more than its share of transformations, and we’re about to remodel in the next couple of months. As you walk in the main door, you can see where the original door stood, now a patchwork of newer–but not new–bricks. Inside looks like a school without a front office. The building is rectangular, so the natural design is a corridor all the way down the middle with classrooms on either side. Toward the end a section was left for the laundry room, bathrooms, and juts off into an extra classroom.
I walk past the school logo, a bulletin board encouraging students to visit the library, and three classroom doors until I come to mine on left. Room 107. This is a cheery room because, unlike my co-workers, I keep the blinds to my room open as much as possible. My posters are brightly colored as well. This semester I choose a red bulletin background and another teacher lent me a lady bug border. The red and green combination is cheerful and coordinates with a Kermit the Frog poster and my new red radio. I don’t know what they teach elementary teachers about decorating their rooms, but I’ve learned as a high school teacher to treat the classroom a bit like a room in my house. At this school, however, I’m limited in what I can or will bring in for decoration. Instead, I try to coordinate the colors in my room much as I would coordinate colors at home. My classroom always evokes compliments, and I puzzle over this because it’s not hard.
Quickly, I shove my bag into my personal drawer in one of the file cabinets after pulling out my belt, radio, radio holster, OC, and OC holster. These I try to put on before walking over to roll call. I brace myself before I go. It’s usually here, or right after, that something awful gets said.